The problem with switching customers from free to paid

 

I’m curious has this tactic ever worked successfully for online businesses?

Let’s backtrack. Earlier today I wanted to send a Facebook message to someone on Facebook without jumping through the hoop of adding them on Facebook. (I try to limit my contacts list to people I know or have met at least once)

And here’s what came up:

Facebook -Sending Messages -Charges Users

Did I pay? No.

I ended finding a different way to get the message to them outside of Facebook but it still made me think. Has it ever worked to charge people for an online service that was free before?

The problem here is without any notice, Facebook suddenly decides to charge for something that was previously free. It might have been communicated to everyone, I wouldn’t know I rarely use the e-mail I used to register for the service almost 5+ years ago but suddenly they want me to pay for something that is free.

Here’s what I think is the problem with that:

  1. It’s not just a price change it’s a paradigm shift. Honestly, if something is free and a user is used to it being free then adding a price to it (no matter how low) will make you look bad. And worse, you will probably meet resistance with that
  2. It looks sleazy. Unless you have communicated clearly why you need to do this, and when this change will take in effect your customers, upping something from $0 to $1 might not look like a big deal to you but to the user who suddenly has to use their credit card it just feels a little icky.
  3. Is it really that essential? In other words is your service all that valuable? This change might have happened eons ago and I’m just finding out because I rarely message people outside of my friend list as is, but to me sending messages to strangers on Facebook is one of those things I have always been able to do, but never really used. So if the goal is to stop people from sending messages to people outside their friend list THANK YOU, the less creepy “friendly” messages from strangers in one’s inbox the better. But if the point is to actually make money off this thing then Good luck with that.
  4. is what you are charging for irreplaceable? the behemoth of social media, Facebook, is unique, but is what they are charging for all that special? Can there be other ways to get in touch? My argument is if there is no alternative then users may grumble and complain but if they have no choice, then they have no choice. Of course, they might hate you for it, but they will grumble and make the switch or stop using the service. But with the option of sending an e-mail, a direct message on Twitter, connecting on LinkedIn there are other options online that I don’t have to pay for, so sorry.

Online or Off-line Communication is Key

Facebook has a history of not really communicating some of it’s shady low-key changes like when it created e-mail accounts for everyone, or its gift system. So really if your users don’t know it’s there would they really like your shiny new idea? Whether it’s a crisis or a new product or what you would consider a small change, communicating clearly with customers BEFORE putting something into effect can make the difference between a hit or miss. And it’s ways of communicating can be improved. Outside of people who are really into tech and social media I don’t think that many people out there that have heard of it’s latest News feed makeover. One would think with the number of increasingly intrusive advertising there would be something that pops up on the news feed of every user about major changes.

Buzz can only do so much if it’s industry specific for a product that everyone uses.

In my humble opinion

Personally, I don’t think Facebook was ever meant to be that big of a money-making machine, its essential -yes, but a big money-maker? I don’t think so. It’s like being charged for G-mail or Hotmail (or Outlook.com as they are desperately trying to re-brand themselves) you could make some money off the advertising and the business that are willing to pay to reach people but the user experience should be left alone. Maybe I’m wrong but the harder they try to make the ordinary user pay the more it feels forced.

By the way, for an example of a company that did manage to make the switch well, look at Hulu. Leave the people who are happy with the service as is alone, and make others who really want to pay for the extra perk of an unlimited experience pay (which for Facebook that’s businesses) It still keeps your core feel-good value of providing your product for free but allows bug fans to upgrade. But as Pandora would tell you, it’s really a hit or miss.

It reminds me of that TED talk Amanda Palmer gave that everyone raved about, let people choose how they want to pay or support you.

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